Sharing Wi-Fi 2 – Atheros turns a cellphone into an access point

There are several smartphone applications that allow a cell phone to act as a wireless WAN router and Wi-Fi access point, creating a wireless LAN with Internet access. For the (jailbroken) iPhone there’s PDAnet, for Windows Mobile there’s WM Wi-Fi Router and for Symbian there’s Walking HotSpot and JoikuSpot. Now Atheros has proposed to bake this functionality into their low power Wi-Fi chipset.

An idea that is as patent jargon goes “obvious to one skilled in the art,” can sometimes have obvious handicaps to one experienced in the industry. While exposing a broadband wireless data connection through a smartphone’s Wi-Fi radio is massively useful to consumers, it is unlikely to appeal to network service providers, who would prefer you to buy a wireless data card (and an additional service subscription) for your laptop rather than to simply use the wireless data connection that you are already paying for on your phone.

It will be interesting to see where this goes. I will be stunned if Atheros’ implementation appears on any phone subsidized by (or even distributed by) a wireless carrier, until they can figure out a way to charge extra for it. As Tim Wu says in his Wireless Carterfone paper (the Wireless Carterfone concept was promoted by Skype, and rejected by the FCC last April):

carriers are in a position to exercise strong control over the design of mobile equipment. They have used that power to force equipment developers to omit or cripple many consumer-friendly features.

The billing issue may not be that intractable. Closely related models already exist. You can get routers from Cisco and other vendors that have a slot for a wireless WAN card, and the service providers have subscription plans for them. More similarly, this could be viewed as a kind of “tethering” But tethering only lets one PC at a time access the wireless WAN connection – unless that PC happens to support My Wi-Fi.

Update: Marvell has announced a similar capability for its 88W8688 chip.

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